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The Missing Mass Market Paperback – September 25, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In her second novel, Langan delivers a powerhouse creepfest that recalls, in the best way possible, the early work of Stephen King. Corpus Christi, Maine, was once a town of affluence, but since the mysterious paper mill fire in the neighboring town of Bedford (depicted in last year's well-received debut, The Keeper) released dense sulfuric clouds that killed the surrounding forest, Corpus Christi has been in steady decline. When fourth-grade teacher Lois Larkin takes her class on a field trip to the now-abandoned Bedford, they're exposed to a deadly virus that transforms the infected into ravenous, flesh-eating monsters. Rather than stick to zombie lit convention (mindless undead, endless chases), Langan invests her plague with a sinister intelligence of unknown origin, maintaining a skin-crawling tension as the vivid cast of characters succumb to murderous insanity, hunting down and tearing apart animals, neighbors and loved ones. Langan has the control of a pro, parsing just enough horrific details to allow the truly gruesome scenes to play out unbound in the imagination; this solid sophomore effort proves that The Keeper's disturbing ability to burrow into readers' heads and stay there was no fluke. (Oct.)
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“Langan has the control of a pro….” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“A genuine creepfest that recalls, in the best way possible, the early work of Stephen King” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“Langan has crafted a grisly horror story that will keep you out of the woods for years to come.” (BookPage)
“Langan has a sharp eye for the small vivid details of American life, and her characters are utterly believable.” (London Times on The Keeper)
“...innovative, sharp, and absolutely chilling...” (Brian Keene, Bram Stoker Award winning author of Ghoul and Dead Sea)
“THE MISSING is reminiscent of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot with wicked drops of Koontz, Barker, and Straub.” (J.C. Patterson)
“[THE MISSING is] as engrossing as a dagger poised at one’s throat.” (J.C. Patterson)
“An astonishing first novel...chilling, haunting, and so smartly written that the pages fly by like the wind.” (Ray Garton, author of THE LOVELIEST DEAD)
“THE KEEPER kept me up, late into the night...I’m hoping for a whole shelf of novels by Langan.” (Kelly Link, author of MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS)
“[A] brilliant debut, heralding the arrival of a major talent.” (Tim Lebbon, author of DUSK and BERSERK)
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That being said, I very much enjoyed The Missing. What started as a cheap download to read during slow periods at work quickly turned into the foremost of all seven-odd books I’m reading at the moment. I was so enthralled with the characters that I put aside A Game of Thrones, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo so I could focus more on my first outing with Sarah Langan.
The Missing starts out strong (ignoring the first-person prologue, which almost turned me off). Its first few chapters, focusing on the characterization of flawed and loveable Lois Larkin, were so understated and well-crafted that I felt like I knew Lois personally. A string of pop culture references (including references to Warren Zevon, my personal favorite and a truly underrated musician. Dew Drop Inn? Nice. I also named the bars in my first book after Zevon songs, so that was a nice coincidence) helped ground this story in a familiar reality (familiar rob everyone, but especially to those of us who grew up in Maine). For every depressive, self-absorbed character introduced, I could think of a dozen real-life Mainers I’ve known who were nearly identical in personality and actions.
I’ve seen people complain that Langan’s characterization of the book’s antagonist – an ancient evil of some sort, living in the woods of Maine – was severely lacking, with no real origins of explanations. But this was one factor of the book I really enjoyed: the allegedly sentient infection that spreads throughout the town was left mysterious and terrifying the entire time. Think about it – did they explain how Jason Voorhees returned from the dead? did they explain by what agent Dorian Gray kept his youth? did they ever tell us how Christine came to be alive?
Halfway through the book, I realized the obvious: this is a zombie story. My first thought when I recognized that was wondering whether it was worth finishing, if it was going to dissolve into yet another generic Walking Dead rip-off.
Thankfully, I kept reading. I quickly came to understand that The Missing is not a traditional zombie story at all: it’s very unique in its depiction of the infected. They’re not mindless drones, wandering around in search of living meat. They’re semi-intelligent, still able to speak English, and somehow connected through what appears to be a hive mind. One of the most iconic aspects of Langan’s infected is their ability to know seemingly everything: more than a few times did they manipulate the living by quoting important figures from their past, usually parents who had imprinted some kind of emotional instability on them.
Another unique and refreshing technique Langan uses is her way of switching up the protagonist role in the novel. At first, one assumes that Lois Larkin is to be our brave heroine; then, perhaps Danny Walker; but by the end, all the drama of the living has been transferred to the Wintrob family, who are some of the most realistic, relatable characters I’ve read in a long time. Maddie and Meg’s rebellion against the men in their lives, plus the mother-daughter tension between them; Fenstad and the way Langan leaves it ambiguous whether he’s insane, infected, or the only smart one around.
Langan’s prose, I will admit, is not stellar. Like many modern writers, she has a habit of leaving out any descriptions of action, allowing a surprising amount of time to pass by in only a few pages. In some scenes, I would have to go back and read through again; missing three words can lead to not understanding the situation at all. Additionally, there were a few typographical errors early on in the book, mainly concerned with spelling or punctuation. Easy mistakes that any editor should have caught.
As for the horror aspect, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is one of the scariest books I’ve read. I really don’t get scared reading books or watching movies – but if I did, The Missing would have scared the shit out of me. A perfect combination of body horror, paranoia, and the terror of wondering what it means to be human made this a book to read with the lights on.
And, since this is horror and this is Maine, here comes the obligatory comparison to Stephen King.
I’ve heard many people compare The Missing to King’s Salem’s Lot. I have a simple response to that. The Missing isn’t Salem’s Lot. It’s better.
Where Salem’s Lot (probably my least-favorite King book) was no more than a haunted house book with traditional vampires cut-and-pasted into a modern day setting, The Missing takes ancient concepts (infections, zombies, and the end of the world) and reinvents them, making them Langan’s own creation. Salem’s Lot showed us absolutely nothing new: just vampires who were scared of sunlight and died when they looked at a cross. Unoriginal and inconsistent with King’s larger shared universe.
Speaking of shared universes, I was unaware that The Missing was connected to Langan’s older work, The Keeper. I don’t believe it was a direct sequel, however, and I was able to enjoy The Missing without having read The Keeper.
All in all, I very much enjoyed The Missing, and hope to read more from Langan in the future.
*Spoiler Warning if you keep reading this review* In "The Keeper," we have a sort of sense of the mysterious things that underlie our destruction of each other and the earth, and their embodiment in a kind of "witch" of sorts--a woman who is almost like a "sin eater" in that she harbors all kinds of horrors, such that when she dies those horrors spill over into the waking world that caused them. But at the end of that novel you have redemptive love and a sense of peace, even if many things had to be destroyed to get there. With "The Missing," it's as if the author tried to take all kinds of themes, like the fact that many different civilizations have just gone missing over the centuries, and combine that with a new life form that inhabits humans, yet rises out of the ashes of this incident that happened in the small town of Bedford from the first novel. It's a mish-mash that doesn't make any sense with what came before it. I wish she had simply written this book as a stand-alone and didn't link it to the last one.
All of this isn't to say it's "totally horrible," which is why I gave it 3 stars. It's definitely readable and enjoyable and a horror novel and a pretty good one at that, it just makes little sense to link this to the last novel she wrote in any way. Here there is no redemption, only payback.
One of the biggest problems with the story is the author's lack of attention to detail. Early in the story she has one of the (many) main characters vomiting, then later in the story she says that same character hasn't puked in years. It's frustrating when even the author can't keep up with the story. At one point someone trips over an ANTELOPE skeleton in Maine. Really??? A 30 second Google search would've told the author there are no antelope roaming the woods of Maine. These are just two examples of the annoying laziness the author insults her readers with.
I'm sure the author was attempting to do what Stephen King does so well, to create deeply flawed and conflicted characters that you can fall in love with. She failed miserably. All she created were people that seem shallow, vapid, and schizophrenic. I finished the book for the sheer train wreck quaility, it was so awful I couldn't look away. If morbid curiousity gets the best of you and you must read this, get it free from the library.